Artwork By Sofia Cabral
In an era when domestic abuse is common, and divorces are difficult to get, how does one save themself from a toxic marriage?
In 17th century Italy, women were seen as men’s “property,” forced to accept pre-arranged, loveless, and often abusive marriages. The only thing they could do was hope and pray their husband would one day turn out to be a decent man. Women who chose to not be married off would often have to stay single and rely on sex work to survive. No matter the choice, women were bound to suffer for the rest of their lives. However there was a third option; they could become well-respected widows (McKennett, 2020).
Meet Giulia Tofana, one of the most successful serial poisoners in history. She managed to assist in the killings of over 600 men in a 50-year period (Carlton, 2018). However, she was not the only killer in her family. Tofana was thirteen when her mother, Tofania d’Amado, was executed for reportedly poisoning her own husband in 1633. D’Amado’s infamous poison recipe was said to have been passed down to young Giulia, kickstarting her venture into following her mother’s footsteps. She began selling the poison to women who wanted to get rid of their husbands until she was caught in the 1650s. In true family fashion, her daughter Girolama Spera also helped Giulia and was executed alongside her (Carlton, 2018).
The aforementioned toxic substance is now called Aqua Tofana, named after Giulia Tofana. It contains lead, arsenic, and possibly belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade). Although the ingredients are common, it is unknown how Giulia blended them to create a tasteless, odorless, and colorless additive that could go unnoticed in any dish or drink. A mere four drops of Aqua Tofana is enough to kill a fully grown adult. To avoid suspicion, women usually gave the poison in 4 separate doses so it acted slowly. The first dose only caused symptoms similar to a cold. The second one caused flu-like symptoms. By the third dose, horrible pain was felt in the stomach as well as throat. And last but not least, the fourth dose caused inevitable death (Millar, 2020).
To get to the actual stage of poisoning, it was essential to make sure the poison is disguised as something else, so as to not arouse any suspicion around the toxic liquid. Guilia sold poison either as a religious healing oil in small vials, or makeup products that could be placed on one’s dressing table (Carlton, 2018). The small vials she sold had the image of Saint Nicolas on them (Carlton, 2018). After all, who would suspect that?
Despite her efforts, Giulia’s long-lasting career would soon come to an end. After a client poured the potion into her husband’s soup and served it to him, the woman had second thoughts and ultimately did not go through with the plan, stopping the husband from eating the soup. After forcing a confession, the husband handed her over to the Papal authorities of Rome. As soon as Giulia was informed about the situation, she fled to the church asking for protection, which they granted. She was safe. At least, so she thought. Following a rumor that Tofana poisoned the city’s water supply, the infuriated church handed her over to the authorities. They tortured her until she confessed to poisoning over 600 men, although it’s possible that the real number was higher. She, along with her daughter and her three other employees, was executed in July of 1659. Even her clients were not safe, as many were punished by imprisonment or execution (Carlton, 2018).
Ironically, Aqua Tofana became even more notorious after the execution. There were times where if somebody fell ill, they would claim they were poisoned by the deadly concoction. One of these people was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who fell ill while working on his Requiem Mass. On his death bed he stated: “Someone has given me Aqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death” (Carlton, 2018). While the cause of Mozart’s death was most likely not poisoning, this represents how popular Aqua Tofana had become and how it affected people’s lives long after the name behind the mass murders was caught.
McKennett, H. (2020, June 2). This 17th-century Potionmaker helped desperate housewives poison their husbands. All That’s Interesting. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/giulia-tofana.
Carlton, G. (2018, March 2). Meet the woman who poisoned makeup to help over 600 women murder their husbands. Medium. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://medium.com/@editors_91459/meet-the-woman-who-poisoned-makeup-to-help-over-600-women-murder-their-husbands-cfb03929c36d.
Millar, J. (2020, August 25). The woman whose ‘cosmetics’ poisoned over 600 unwanted husbands. Medium. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://historyofyesterday.com/the-woman-whose-cosmetics-poisoned-over-600-unwanted-husbands-f14456cd8dfa.